That Old Timey Magic

A wonderful view.

A wonderful view.

To an entertainer, an empty theater might be the saddest of all things. It is a shame more films are not as beautiful as Sylvain Chomet’s most recent masterwork, The Illusionist (2010). This is a film that is doing more things than most people will ever realize. At once it is a fable for the aging arts and it is also a fitting farewell from a film legend…from beyond the grave. Zombie movie? Like Chomet’s extraordinarily imaginative The Triplets of Belleville (2003), The Illusionist is an affectionate exploration into the world of vagabond vaudevillians and destitute dotards, but its tone is decidedly more somber and poetic.

A theater.

The theater awakens.

Once again, as with Triplets and his short The Old Lady and the Pigeons (1998), The Illusionist showcases Chomet’s brilliant attention to detail, his knack for gorgeously fascinating character design, exquisite control of movement and weight, and uncanny ability to tell a great story without the aid of spoken language. Chomet’s work tends to hearken back to the glory days of pantomime on vaudeville and in early cinema. Perhaps that is what makes The Illusionist so perfect a film for this visionary director to undertake. The story was composed by fellow French auteur, Jacques Tati (Playtime), a man whose sensibilities lie heavily on the side of classic silent comedy.

Tati’s comedies are quiet, satirical studies in shifting environments. To stand back and view Tati’s whole canon one can begin to see two trends: first that Tati’s character of Mr. Hulot seems to be fading into the background while the films themselves become more and more purposely plotless, and secondly that the countryside of Mr. Hulot’s adventures is steadily disappearing and being engulfed by dispassionate concrete modernity. Tati seemed to be the French Charlie Chaplin of the fifties and sixties, doggedly telling taciturn tales of a lost shadow in a labyrinth of encroaching skyscrapers and smoke. If his sensibilities seemed backwards and anachronistic then, just imagine if he were making movies today. Well, I am happy to report that Jacques Tati is alive and well and inhabiting the latest and most bittersweet effort by Sylvain Chomet.

The magician.

The magician.

In The Illusionist an aging magician discovers his audience is diminishing so he travels far, scouring the land for the next venue for his magic act and skittish rabbit. He chances upon an affable drunk in England who takes him to Scotland where he performs at a bar and picks up a stowaway upon his departure. A young girl, dazzled by the strange foreign visitor’s tricks, follows him believing that all of the nice things he has given her were freely snatched out of thin air. She doesn’t seem to understand the money the good magician is throwing away to buy his friend the things she desires, but he never tells her and she always wants more material things that cost money. This habit has the magician taking more and more lowly jobs just to provide for himself and the girl as they live in a tumbledown hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland.  The hotel is also occupied by several other has-beens from better days. There is an alcoholic ventriloquist and a team of out-of-work acrobatic brothers and a suicidal clown living just down the hall. It seems as though no one has use for these creaking relics of the theater. Where is a poor magician to display his craft in this new world? Eventually the girl grows older and begins to fancy a young gentleman and the magician (as well as the other hotel denizens) become older, poorer and more pathetic. The final act is one of the most somber and beautiful finales I have seen and I would not have it any other way.

Far from France.

Far from Paris.

Perhaps it is easier to tell what The Illusionist is rather than what it is about. Some have called it a postcard to the rainy hillsides and winding, cobbled streets of Edinburgh. It may be that, but it is so much more. It is also a heartfelt tribute, as well as a funeral dirge, to the dying arts and artists of this world. Fitting it should be based on a script written by a dead spokesperson for just that, and even more fitting it should be rendered in old-fashioned two-dimensional cel-animation. The film is soft, quiet, pensive, tranquil, thoughtful, and tragic and it retains all of these heavy watermarks while staying humorously buoyant and charming. Despite some of the more melancholy elements of the plot, I could not help but be swept along with the sweet murmurs of mirth that permeated the delicate atmosphere of that darkened theater. I wore a smile the whole time because I was impressed with the gorgeous animation and because I was laughing at the protagonist’s maudlin misfortunes and unflappably gallant manners and I smiled because I was sad.

The Illusionist may be more literally the story of a magician waving good-bye to a declining limelight, but I feel as though I am watching the flesh and blood Jacques Tati blow a farewell kiss to us all, and even though he may not be physically present I would not hesitate to call it the perfect swansong for Tati.

Mass transit.

Mass transit.

Perhaps Tati is present in the film. In addition to a brief scene featuring Mon Oncle playing in an old theater, Chomet has captured Tati/Hulot’s postures, gait, and mannerisms perfectly. The magician carries an umbrella and even wears the same striped socks, bow-tie, and raincoat and, in one scene, even has the hat of Mr. Hulot. The magician has the same awkward second-guess step and toe-tilting rigidity and balance that Mr. Hulot possessed. His hands always find their way to his hips or clasped innocently behind him. The magician is a lovingly molded caricature. Where the characters in Triplets and Old Lady were hilariously grotesque exaggerations, the characters of The Illusionist seem to be sculpted with more compassion. Much like Wall-e, the magician’s relative silence and absence of a wide range of facial expression do not hinder the audience from understanding exactly what is transpiring in that little animated brain. His quiet demeanor only give us more understanding of his plight and give him more sympathy.

A The Illusionist is another beautifully drawn and outstanding comedic yarn about displacement and desperation from the brilliant mind of Sylvain Chomet. The film is very soulful and personal and very well exectued. I chuckled much and felt very wistful throughout The Illusionist. This is a movie for fans of Sylvain Chomet and Jacques Tati and Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and Scotland and vaudeville and antiques and rain and cel animation and magic. It’s utterly sublime.

Goodbye, old friend.

Goodbye, old friend.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan. 17, 2011.

Babbitt and Catstello Meet Tweety Bird

If there is one thing that defines the Warner Bros. studio it is their “Looney Tunes” cartoons from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. These decades produced some of the most memorable cartoons in history along with some of the most iconic and edgy cartoon characters ever to be transmogrified into accordions via a falling anvil. Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, Speedy Gonzales, Road-Runner, Yosemite Sam, Pepe Le Pew, the Tasmanian Devil, Wile E. Coyote, Rocky the Gangster, Hippety Hopper, Sam Sheepdog, Witch Hazel, Foghorn Leghorn, Marvin the Martian, Sylvester, Tweety, and all the rest have become such a part of our culture it’s difficult to imagine America without them.

Classic characters aside, there were some equally memorable side characters that never made it into more than a few shorts. Pete Puma, the Dover Boys, Michigan J. Frog, Marc Anthony, the Dodo, Frisky, the Three Little Bops, the Scotsman, the forgetful wolf whose name escapes me, and countless others only ever had one or two shots to become a part of the illustrious Warner Bros. cartoon cannon. But they made it!

Often times Hollywood celebrities from the era made it into the act as well. From random gatherings in Have You Got Any Castles? (1938), Hollywood Steps Out (1941) and Book Revue (1946) (directed by Frank Tashlin, Tex Avery, and Bob Clampett respectively) to more subversive integrations like when a caveman with the voice and caricatured mannerisms of Jack Benny pursues Daffy Duck while verbally abusing his pet dinosaur in Chuck Jones’ Daffy and the Dinosaur (1939) or when Porky Pig horrifically morphs into Oliver Hardy in the finale of Clampett and Norm McCabe’s Timid Toreador (1940). That Porky Pig morph actually disturbed me as a child. Sometimes the Warner’s cartoons had fun playing with their own formulas such as when Robert McKimson made Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton into mice for The Honey-Mousers (1956). These cartoons also frequently took pot shots at Lon Chaney, Jr.’s performance as Lennie in Of Mice and Men (1939)…perhaps funniest in McKimson’s Hoppy-Go-Lucky (1952).

One of the funniest cartoons ever made (in my most humble opinion) is Robert Clampett’s A Tale of Two Kitties (1942). In this cartoon a pair of cats, modeled after the very funny Abbott and Costello comedy team, try and get a little baby bird. It just so happens that this particular cartoon is the first appearance of Tweety Bird. As with most “Looney Tunes” cartoons it’s all just a standard formula setup for imaginative violence. Cats try and get bird, bird hurts them. What makes this cartoon so hilarious is that Babbitt and Catstello are actually funnier than their real life human counterparts.

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were very popular comic icons from the 40s, successfully conquering the stage, radio, film, and eventually television. Their infamous “Who’s on first!” bit still plays in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. The constant theme was that Costello was almost a baby trapped in a man’s body and Abbott was the oft times far too harsh straight man. Where it makes more sense, despite their differences, why Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel would share beds (Hardy probably knows he’s a big loser and you can tell he really likes Laurel) I could never figure out why the mostly humorless Abbott would ever put up with Costello’s infantile shenanigans. This infant and grouch duo made nearly 40 films together including some comedy classics such as Buck Privates (1941), Hold That Ghost (1941), Who Done It? (1942), Hit the Ice (1943), The Naughty Nineties (1945), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

With knowledge of the rules and dynamics for an Abbott and Costello routine and a firm grasp on the lawlessness and physics-lacking hyper-violent universe of “Looney Tunes” one can now sit back and enjoy A Tale of Two Kitties.

It opens with a lean Babbitt (voiced by Tedd Pierce) kicking around a rotund Catstello (voiced by the incomparable Mel Blanc). From the get-go you recognize the familiar voices and then you get an even bigger laugh when you see the cat forms of Abbott and Costello. Babbitt almost looks more like a wolf and his long, graceful build is more reminiscent to a Wile E. Coyote than a Sylvester the cat. Catstello has the weak, wrinkled brow and dim, pleading eyes, and exaggerated jowls and is about as hard to recognize as a cat as John Kricfalusi’s Stimpy. Yet the pointed ears and typical color patterns tells us that these hideous mutations are indeed of the feline persuasion. Babbitt is evidently accustomed to harassing Catstello into performing dangerous tasks and so today’s adventure should be no different. Catstello must climb a very high telephone pole and apprehend the baby bird. Several attempts lead to Catstello falling from great heights, being flattened, shot, bludgeoned, blown up, etc. Babbitt all the while waits comfortably on terra firma and slaps Catstello around whenever he returns empty-handed.

It’s well drawn, has brilliant timing, there are puns and anvil gags, but the real big joke is just how exaggerated everything is. Babbitt is not just being impatient like Abbott. He’s being downright sociopathic and barbarically unreasonable. That Catstello takes it like an ashamed idiot puts the real Abbott and Costello in a whole new light. They aren’t friends with the occasional difference. These are two diametrically opposed individuals and their lives play out more like a shockingly abusive relationship than comedy. When Catstello gets crushed several feet into the earth by an anvil, a suddenly concerned Babbitt compassionately screams “Speak to me! Speak to me!” Following a childish whistle from the flattened feline, Babbitt scoldingly bellows “Why do you do these things?” as he pulls his broken friend off the anvil and slaps him across the face. It’s so unreasonable it’s comedy gold!

In many ways this short is spookily prophetic of the serious rift that would eventually break up Abbott and Costello. Unlike Laurel and Hardy who stayed friends to the end, their friendship eventually did deteriorate and their comedy suffered.

Catstello is just as pathetic as Babbitt is unfeeling. Perhaps moreso. Mel Blanc’s explodingly shrill and obnoxious Costello screams are just hilarious. Simple lines like, “Look, Babbitt. Stilts. ♫.” become hysterical in Blanc’s unflattering impersonation. Ted Pierce does a pretty funny Abbott as well. These two ingredients make for the funniest cat duo ever to pursue a Tweety Bird. Sylvester teamed up with a lot of cats over the years, but not one single combo had the elasticity and barbarity of these schmoes. In addition to being crapped on my Babbitt, Catstello is also malevolently manhandled by Tweety Bird. The “this widdle piddy went to market” gag still cracks me up. It’s as much a sick game for Tweety who has no feeling for a would-be predator as it is chastising a small child to Babbitt and poor, dumb Catstello is stuck in the middle. It’s amazing Tweety Bird really took off as a result of this cartoon because he’s more of a plot device to set up evil gags directed at the plump cat (Tweety would largely be handled by director Friz Freleng in the future). Tweety does develop a strong character in this cartoon though and he’s more diabolical and I’d say funnier than he ever would be again. The same can be said of the two cats.

True they were a one hit wonder, but Frank Tashlin directed a pseudo-sequel called A Tale of Two Mice (1945) featuring two mouse versions of Abbott and Costello. The result was not nearly as funny. Clampett would assign another celebrity identity to a cat body in A Gruesome Twosome (1945) where a dopey-eyed cat and a Jimmy Durante styled cat fight over the affections of a female. Tweety Bird gets in the mix again and the Jimmy Durante cat is very funny, but it never reaches the wild and zany brilliance of A Tale of Two Kitties. Everything worked and I suppose it would be hard to top had they done more. Maybe they’re better off as one-shot wonders like Michigan J. Frog. They did manage to make a few cameos and even one more short, but it weren’t as good so we can skip it.

This cartoon is Bob Clampett at the top of his game. It’s zany, violent, screwy, and the characters are stretchy and boneless. It ranks up there alongside Wabbit Twouble (1941), Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid (1942), An Itch in Time (1943), Falling Hare (1943), and The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (1946) for sheer baffling comic ludicrosity. Clampett might have been the only one who could have pulled off all the gags in this cartoon. The best “Looney Tunes” were anarchic and screwball and if you’ve ever seen Porky in Egypt (1937)* (yes, even more than Porky in Wackyland) you know Clampett could be wild and inventive. By taking two classic comedians and making them hyper-violent cartoon cats and pitting them against a seemingly innocent naked baby bird you can get one of the funniest cartoons ever made.

A Tale of Two Kitties makes me fall on the floor laughing (generational translation: rofl) every time I see it. And I have seen it a lot. One thing I almost forgot to mention was that this cartoon features some interesting wartime jokes and even a smarmy reference to the Hays Code that history buffs might enjoy. For the birth of Tweety Bird, some truly warped incarnations of classic comedians, or just for a good laugh watch or re-watch A Tale of Two Kitties. Lord knows it’s out there on the internet.

*Porky in Egypt starts as your typical period exploration into the realm of cultural insensitivity. Porky Pig is your standard milquetoast protagonist and he’s not particularly interesting. About halfway through the cartoon the sun punches Porky’s camel square in the face. The camel, named Humpty Bumpty, goes crazy from desert madness and whatever story was being carefully setup completely derails and becomes a nightmarish descent into insanity. It’s almost ironically titled Porky in Egypt because Porky does very little in the cartoon. It is hilarious and totally unpredictable and I can’t help but feel like the yak’s breakdown in the Royal Canadian Kilted Yaksman episode of “Ren and Stimpy” was somewhat modeled after it.

http://johnkstuff.blogspot.com/2006/09/timingpacing-tale-of-two-kitties-1942.html

http://www.sidereel.com/The_Looney_Tunes_Show/season-13/episode-1

http://fan.tcm.com/_A-Tale-of-Two-Kitties-WB-1942-d-Robert-Clampett/photo/8790883/66470.html?createPassive=true

http://www.twynkle.com/movies/33474